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Backyard Gardens: Seeds and Starters to Companion Plants and Wonder Bugs

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Herold's Yellow Foxglove, Available at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm 


Herold's Yellow Foxglove, Available at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm

With the effort you will put into creating the perfect environment for growing food, you will want to make sure you get quality seeds in order to grow the healthiest plants. The most coveted of seed varieties are heirloom or heritage seeds. These seeds are sourced from plants whose lineages have consistently produced fruits or vegetables with the fullest flavor and color, without being genetically engineered or modified. When buying seeds, don’t be afraid to ask questions about them and their source. Honest people won’t hesitate to share this information with you.

If you prefer starter plants to seeds, Mulberry Creek Organic Herb Farm on Bogart Road in Sandusky is the place to go. Not only do they have an enormous selection of organically certified herbs and miniature perennials but they have some of the most reasonable prices in the country for quality culinary, ornamental, medicinal and crafting plants. You can view their full catalog online to plan ahead or go and be pleasantly surprised at their seemingly endless selection. They offer profiles on each of their plants with information on growing and usage, including recipes.

Also consider saving the seed from year to year in order to pinch pennies from your annual garden budget. Here is an explanation about seed saving from the Rodale Institute.


Marigolds keep a variety of pests from feasting on other garden plants.

Marigolds keep a variety of pests from feasting on other garden plants.

Garden Planning: Companion Planting

Did you know that if you plant basil with your tomatoes, then you will end up with a bigger, juicier harvest? Or that if you border your garden with a variety of marigolds then you’ll avoid the blight of many garden pests? There are methods to the madness of gardening, and companion planting is your ticket to successful crops without the use of chemicals. The Native American Indians understood companion planting even thousands of years ago. They grew the Three Sisters together, consisting of corn, beans and squash with great success. Even the Mayans passed down the socio-agronomic tradition of Milpa farming, which is the practice of a community-based planting of crops that are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. It is said that the “[building] of a milpa culture is the central, most sacred act, one which binds together the family, the community, the universe…[it] formed the core institution of Indian society in Mesoamerica and its traditional religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance.” A deep lesson can be learned from naturally-occuring symbiotic relationships.



One of the best explanation resources we found is The Rodale Institute’s Companion Planting Made Easy guide. Here is an excerpt from the experts to explain the concept:

In the simplest terms, companion planting is the technique of combining two plants for a particular purpose.  If your crops are regularly attacked by insects, you can use companions to hide, repel, or trap pests. Other companions provide food and shelter to attract and protect beneficial insects. And some plants grow well together just because they don’t compete for light or rooting space. Expanding the diversity of your garden plantings and incorporating plants with particularly useful characteristics are both part of successful companion planting.

Creating Diversity

In contrast to the wide diversity of natural systems—like forests and prairies—our gardens and farms tend to contain neat, identical plantings of just a few different plant species. These large groups of similar plants, called monocultures, are prime targets for insect and disease attack. Increasing the diversity of your garden plantings is a natural and effective way to avoid a monoculture and minimize pest and disease problems. Technically, adding diversity could be as simple as increasing the number of different plants in your garden. Sounds simple—until you realize that you have a limited amount of room in your garden, which is taken up by your favorite crops. But, if you create a planned diversity, you can still have good (or even better) yields from the same amount of space. For instance, instead of growing the same vegetable cultivars in thesame beds every year, try changing their positions each year, or at least try different cultivars. To get even more diversity, try open-pollinated seeds instead of hybrids. The plants from open-pollinated seed are all just a little different genetically, so even if pests or diseases attack some of the plants, the rest of the crop may be spared. An easy and pleasant way to add diversity to the vegetable garden is to add flowering plants. Mix annual flowers and herbs in the beds or rows of vegetables, or create permanent beds nearby for perennials and bulbs. Besides looking good, flowers provide a source of food and shelter for spiders and beneficial insects that eat or parasitize plant pests.

Enriching the Soil

All plants withdraw some nutrients from the soil as they grow, but some actually return more nutrients than they consume. Legumes—plants like peas, beans, and clover—have a mutually beneficial relationship with nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria. These bacteria colonize legume roots, absorbing up to 20 percent of the sugars the plants produce. The bacteria use this energy to capture atmospheric nitrogen (nitrogen gas) and convert it into nitrogen compounds that plants can use. Some of this nitrogen goes directly back to the host plant. Another part of the nitrogen trapped by the rhizobium bacteria is released into the soil as the nodule-bearing roots die off and decompose. This nitrogen is available during the season to boost the growth of any companion plants growing nearby. The big bonus comes when you turn the foliage and roots of the legumes into the soil. When they decay, they can release enough nitrogen to feed the next crop you grow.

Repelling Pest Insects

A key part of creating effective crop combinations is using the natural abilities of the plant to attract, confuse, or deter insects. Some plants produce repellent or toxic compounds that chase pests away or stop them from feeding. In other cases, the aromatic compounds released by plants can mask the scent of companion crops. Summer savory, for example, may help hide your bush beans from pests, while tansy is said to repel Colorado potato beetles from a potato planting. Garlic releases deterrent aromas into the air that may chase away insects such as bean beetles and potato bugs. Mint may keep cabbage loopers off cabbage plants, while basil can discourage tomato hornworms on tomatoes. Try pungent plants as an edging around garden beds, or mix them in among your crops. Or, if you can’t grow the repellents close enough to your crops, try spreading clippings of the scented plants over garden beds for the same effect.

Luring Pests from Crops

Some plants have an almost irresistible appeal for certain pests. Nasturtiums, for instance, are an excellent attractant plant because they’re a favorite of aphids. Colorado potato beetles find black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) more alluring than even your best potato plants. Attractant plants can protect your crops in two ways. First, they act as decoys to lure pests away from your desirable crops. Second, they make it easier to control the pests since the insects are concentrated on a few plants. Once pests are “trapped,” you can pull out the attractant plants (cover them with paper or plastic bags first, if the pests are small or fast-moving) and destroy them along with the pests, or apply some other type of control measure to the infested plants.

Sheltering Beneficial Insects

Not all insects are garden enemies. Many actually help your garden grow by eating or parasitizing plant pests. You can encourage these beneficial creatures to make a home in your garden by planting their favorite flowering plants. Growing dill, for example, can attract pesteating spiders, lacewings, and parasitic wasps, which will help control caterpillars on cabbage, beetles on cucumbers, and aphids on lettuce. Plants that produce large quantities of easily accessible pollen and nectar— like yarrow, fennel, and goldenrod— provide shelter and supplemental food for hungry beneficials.

Butterflies pollinate and add beauty to your garden.

Butterflies pollinate and add beauty to your garden.

Here are several other websites that give great companion plant lists. When selecting what must-haves that will be in your garden or food plot, look to see what else grows well with them as you plan your garden layout. Be sure to also look at what won’t  work well with what you’ve chosen.

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

Companion Planting

Garden Toad Companion Plant Guide

The Green Garden Blog


Praying mantis in defense pose.

Praying mantis in defense pose.

Within your garden, there should be many beneficial life forms working instinctively together to create a diverse ecosystem. However, if you do have a problem with a blight of any kind, we recommend some organically approved, perfectly legal integrated pest management tactics. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service offers advice on insect pests, weeds and plants diseases. Because the majority of plant problems thrive in degraded environments, an article at Thrifty Fun on organic pest control reiterates the point that a healthy garden begins with healthy soil.

Be wary of using petroleum-based chemical fertilizers and weed killers when getting space ready for your garden. Chemical applications can kill off the soil biology; altering the energy cycle with the chemicals being absorbed into your bloodstream, keeping you from benefiting from the essential vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in your fresh food.We encourage you to read Local Food Sandusky’s article on Composting for more on soil health.

Bumble bees are native pollinators.

Bumble bees are native pollinators.

Flower Power and Wonder Bugs

Managing your garden for pest control not only cuts down on your workload, but it also reduces the amount of insecticides that you use in your garden. And fewer insecticides means more good bugs, which in turn means help in controlling bad bugs. By planting certain herbs and flowers near your food plants, you can keep insect and rodent pests from invading your garden while attracting native pollinators, like bees and butterflies, and garden guardians, such as ladybugs and praying mantis. We recommend some of these old reliable garden tricks:


  • Marigolds – French marigolds repel whiteflies and kill bad nematodes. Mexican marigolds are said to offend a host of destructive insects and wild rabbits as well. If you choose marigolds for your garden they must be scented to work as a repellant. While this plant drives away many bad bugs, it also attracts spider mites and snails.
  • Chrysanthemums – Also known as mums are beautiful flowers that can help control things like roaches, ticks, silverfish, lice, fleas, bedbugs, and ants in certain parts of your garden. White flowering chrysanthemums are said to drive away Japanese beetles.
  • Nasturtiums – Plant with tomatoes and cucumbers as a way to fight off wooly aphids, whiteflies, squash bugs, and cucumber beetles. The flowers, especially the yellow blooming varieties, act as a trap for aphids.
  • Petunias – These repel asparagus beetles, leafhoppers, a range of aphids, tomato worms, and a good many other pests.
  • Sunflowers – These will draw aphids away from other plants and ants move their colonies onto sunflowers. The sunflowers are tough enough that they suffer no damage. Their big, beautiful blooms will attract plenty of pollinators to your garden.
  • Hyssop – great for attracting honeybees to the garden
  • Lavender – a favorite among many beneficial insects and also repels fleas and moths.
  • Basil – Repels thrips, flies and mosquitoes. Plant basil along side tomatoes for larger, tastier tomatoes.
  • Borage – Repels tomato hornworms and cabbage worms and attract beneficial bees and wasps. Borage also adds trace elements to the soil. This is an annual, but readily comes back each year from seed.
  • Catnip – Repels just about everything, except for cats. Use it to keep away flea beetles, aphids, Japanese beetles, squash bugs, ants, and weevils. The cats it may attract will control the rodents that may eat your food plants. Use sachets of dried catnip to deter ants indoors.
  • Dill – Attracts hoverflies and predatory wasps, and its foliage is used as food by swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. Tomato hornworms are also attracted to dill, so if you plant it at a distance, you can help draw these destructive insects away from your tomatoes. Dill also repels aphids and spider mites. Sprinkle dill leaves on squash plants to repel squash bugs. Dill is best planted with cucumbers and onions. During the cool season, try planting along with lettuce.
  • Chives – Repel Japanese beetles and carrot rust flies. It has also been said that chives will help prevent apple scab when planted among apple trees.
  • Garlic – Great taste and health benefits and when planted near roses, it repels aphids. It also deters codling moths, Japanese beetles, root maggots, snails, and carrot root fly.

Remember, lady bugs and praying mantis are signs of a healthy garden! Lady bugs, both adults and larvae, feed on aphids (plant lice/green bugs), but are also known to scavenge on wide variety of other pesky soft-bodied insects, mites & eggs. Each ladybug can consume as many as 5,000 aphids during their one year life span. For more information on how to attract lady bugs to your garden, visit here. Praying mantis will eat any bug of a size they can catch and are considered to be very beneficial to the organic gardener.  Each year, tens of thousands of mantis egg cases are sold in some garden stores for this purpose.



Backyard Orchards

Pawpaw fruit blossom.

Pawpaw fruit blossom.

If your garden space can afford it, fruit trees may offer a better return on effort than anything in your garden. There are many different varieties of fruit trees that grow well in the climate of Northern Ohio. For example, one semi-dwarf apple tree, can produce up to 500 apples in a season, producing up to 15 to 20 years. If you plant several trees with different harvest times, you can eat freshly picked fruit for eight months out of the year.

Although in Ohio, we attribute our apple trees to the legend of Johnny Appleseed, the only native fruit to Ohio is that of the pawpaw tree. The fruit tastes like a combination of bananas and mangoes and grows well in most midwestern and northern states. Other fruit trees that grow well in our area (depending on variety and season) include apples, pears, tart cherries and European plums. Although they can be grown successfully, late spring frost tends to damage peaches, nectarines and apricots making them more challenging to grow.

The following fruit tree varieties are said to grow well together:

  • peaches and nectarines
  • apricots and pluots
  • apricots and plums

For more general information on Backyard Orchards and other Ohio Fruits, check out the following links:

Ohio Master Gardeners: Ohio Fruit

Growing Fruit Trees is Earth Easy!

National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service: Backyard Orchards

Backyard Orchard Tips

Fruit Trees in Small Spaces

For more information about Urban Agriculture and food options that will save you money, keep you healthy and build community, visit The Erie Wire and the websites of our partners. We would also recommend listening to Deconstructing Dinner, one of our most celebrated resources for local food security.

Grow Food From Your Yard, Even if You Don’t Have a Yard.

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Do you ever wonder why the grocery store chains in Ohio sell produce from California, Mexico, Chile, El Salvador, Ecuador, and so on, even though we are able to grow much of the same food right here in our own state? Over 50% of Erie County is zoned for agriculture, and all of it is capable of producing delicious, nutritious food that doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles to get to your dinner plate. Due to minerals deposited by the glacier that formed the Great Lakes 10,000 years ago, this part of Ohio has some of the most nutrient-rich soil in North America giving us a combination of loamy soils, which are considered great for specialty food crop production. Erie County is also located in what is known as a fruit belt. Although we can have very cold, snowy winters, the lake effect moderates seasonal temperatures by absorbing heat and cooling the air in summer, then slowly radiating that heat in autumn, giving us a consistent temperate climate through much of the year. This allows us to grow a variety of fruits and other warmer climate crops with large-scale success. Imagine harvesting the following fruits and vegetables that you grew yourself.

Grow it yourself!

Grow it yourself!

tomatoes, squash, peaches, broccoli, celery, pears, peppers, lettuces,

sweet corn, onions, herbs, spinach, cauliflower, garlic, zucchini, apples,

pumpkins, grapes, beets, melons, plums, carrots, beans, cabbage, peas,

grain, berries, eggplants, radishes, cucumbers, potatoes, sunflowers and more.

Seeds are an inexpensive investment, water is everywhere, and the sun is free. Keeping a food garden, even in the city, can save you money and keep you healthy.


Are you afraid of starting your own garden because it seems to be too big of a challenge? The Container Gardening Blog offers some words of encouragement:

“You may think you haven’t a clue about growing vegetables. But the truth is that you can easily learn enough to be growing useful crops in quite a short time span, and each session spent in your garden teaches you something new. You will learn much that is unique to your own situation, such as local soil conditions, your particular aspect in relation to the sun, and oddities that relate to your local microclimate. You will learn most of this by getting out and giving it a go. Without question the taste of homegrown vegetables is vastly superior to that of the commercially grown produce. Have you heard people complain that [store-bought] tomatoes no longer have any taste? [Flavor is a good indicator of how fresh and nutritious the food is]. They will when you grow your own – you will never taste better. The lack of taste with the commercial crop is not all the fault of the growers, as they are under pressure to produce a crop, of uniform size and color, to the schedule of the wholesale market, and ultimately the supermarket. [This kind of emphasis on quantity crops produces food made for shelf life instead of on quality, nutrition and freshness.] When you grow your own vegetables, you set the schedule.”

There are many ways to turn your yard, front or back, large or small, into a beautiful, rewarding garden. Late winter is the perfect time to start planning a good layout and preparing for the plants you are going to grow. Knowing how the sun moves across different parts of your yard will help in your decisions.

If you are utilizing a small urban space for vegetable growing, it is in your best interest to use raised beds. Raised beds can be kept in a garden box you can build yourself. Click here for another website that offers a guide on how to build one. Using wood, cinder blocks, bricks, or other recycled materials to create the frame of the garden box makes this an inexpensive option. Here is a raised bed layout for a productive vegetable garden about the size of a parking space.

Raised bed vegetable garden

Raised bed vegetable garden

In  order to make the most of the seasons, you can turn smaller garden boxes into cold frames during early winter and early spring. A cold frame is simply a small to medium garden box with a clear glass or plastic lid that will create a microclimate with sunlight, allowing for the soil to stay warm enough for seeds to germinate and plants to grow. For more information on cold frames, click here. If you are eager enough to start your garden before the last frost, visit here for some excellent suggestions.


Cold frames and other early season methods give you more!

Cold frames and other early season methods give you more!


If you have enough space and are feeling ambitious, you can make your own hoop house inexpensively. This is a makeshift greenhouse that, although unheated, will provide protection against wind, frost, and excessive rain while giving the plants inside it extra warmth during the daytime, extending your growing season. Westside Gardener is an informative site that offers a shopping list and a step-by-step guide on parts and assembly instructions for a 21’ x 10’ hoop house that will stand 7’ tall. Simply visit your local hardware store, show them the list of supplies and they ought to be able to give you pricing information on the materials. If you are interested in building one, check out the following Kitchen Gardener and Hoop Benders for more information and resources.

Building your own hoop house is relatively inexpensive

Building your own hoop house is relatively inexpensive





There are also many clever ideas for using containers when organizing a small space garden. Vertical gardening using grow towers and grow ladders are excellent for small boxed herbs and strawberries while trellises, arches and fences are helpful when growing vine plants and hanging garden baskets. For inspiration on vertical gardens and garden walls, visit here.

If you are on a tight budget, using old junk in a different way can be a thrifty, creative opportunity to give your garden some character. An article in Northern Gardening suggests cleaning out your garage, attic, or basement to see what items you can give new lives to instead of sending to the landfill. Once you start thinking like this, you won’t ever look at old stuff the same way again.

Get creative with your old junk!

Get creative with your old junk!

At every rummage sale and flea market, you’ll find yourself thinking about what you could do with various things you see. Old railings and ladders can be turned into fences or trellises. Drawers can become planters or small garden boxes – be sure to add a few drainage holes. Cabinet doors can be put together to form wonderful bottomless garden boxes. You can coordinate them with paint, making them all one color or leave them as they are to make a statement. A note to remember: If you are going to paint, you should use plant-safe materials. Ask at a good paint center and they should be able to tell you which products are non-toxic to plants and people. Look for the VOC-Free label.

Don’t have a yard? There are many ideas for roof top gardens if you are in a building with a flat roof and are in need of space. This article on Daily Kos not only gives excellent starter advice for roof top gardens but also some more money-saving blueprints for space efficient containers.



There is the option of community and neighborhood gardens to provide nutritional and social advantages, allowing for the possibility of food to be made available to everyone, even low-income housing residents. Organizing a space, so that anyone who participates will receive an equal share, provides a golden-rule opportunity for individuals to help themselves while helping others. Recent developments in western and northern Philadelphia have proved the success of this concept.

Grow a garden, even if you don't have a yard!

Grow a garden, even if you don't have a yard!

The Erie County Metroparks have a foodbank at Osborne park, sponsored by the Erie County Men’s Gardening Club. For a small fee of only $20 a year, you have access to a 20×20 plot of land to grow whatever you’d like, just as long as it is maintained and no chemicals are used: such as petrol-based fertilizers, weed killers and other pest controls. These harmful chemicals can destroy the essential biological structure of the soil and leech into the waterways, causing accidental environmental damage and posing a potential health risk to people who are exposed to them regularly.


This article is the first of a series, so check back for the next installments that will outline preparation for soil quality, composting, seed options and integrated pest management.


For more information about Urban Agriculture and food options that will save you money, keep you healthy and build community, visit The Erie Wire and the websites of our partners.